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Army in the Air

The crew of the aircraft carrier HMS Khedive had to restrain this 656 Air Observation Post Squadron Auster when deck landing, during the invasion of Rangoon in May 1945, as no arrester hook was fitted to the ship.

It was not until the 1930s that the Army realised it might once again need its own pilots. In 1933, an article appeared in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute written by Captain HJ Parham of the Royal Artillery (RA). It criticised the existing method of directing artillery fire from the Army co-operation aircraft by use of Morse code over a one way wireless and responses by means of ground signals. The Army Cooperation pilots would be briefed for the sortie at a distant airfield; there was considerable delay before the target could be engaged. Captain Parham suggested that a light aircraft flown by a gunner officer and with two way radio would be much more effective

As the dark clouds of war gathered in 1939, key officers realised the need for the Army to get back into the air, notably Major Charles Bazeley RA, who lobbied the Ministry of Defence for a simple, rugged reconnaissance aircraft. The Royal Artillery Flying Club at Larkhill conducted a number of trials to develop this idea and as the Club's secretary, Major Bazeley persuaded the War Office, with Air Ministry  agreement, to hold official trials in 1939 but using the current Army Cooperation in service aircraft, the Westland Lysander.

The trials for the Westland Lysander were successful but, although a fine aircraft, it was no match for enemy aircraft and was often shot down. This was particularly evident in May 1940 where the events of Dunkirk overshadowed attempts to develop the Air Observation Post (AOP) Squadron. Major Bazeley persisted and 651 AOP Squadron  Royal Air Force was formed at Royal Air Force Old Sarum in August 1941, equipped with the British Taylorcraft Auster AOP Mk I,  known subsequently as the 'Auster'. The Squadron saw action in Tunisia in November 1942 and was given the improved performance Auster III. These aircraft operated from field airstrips close to the artillery units they supported and learnt to evade enemy fighters by developing 'nap of the earth' flying techniques. Before the end of the war, a further 15 Squadrons were formed, including one Polish and three Canadian. They fought in all major operational theatres during the Second World War (1939-1945)

In 1944-1945 the Squadrons were equipped with the Auster IV and V with the American Lycoming engine. The Lysander and Auster became the eyes and ears of the Army. The Auster also became famous amongst the rank and file for delivering much needed ammunition and supplies as well as evacuating casualties. After the war most AOP Squadrons were disbanded but those that survived were soon pressed into service in Palestine, Malaya, Korea and Cyprus using the Auster VI. This continued as the main AOP aircraft with the Auster VII as the training equivalent. The Auster IX was brought into service in 1946 and continued for 11 years until the AOP Sqns were subsumed into the newly formed Army Air Corps on 1st September 1957. 

 
 Royal Air Force AOP Squadron formation dates  
Squadron Date Place and aircraft
 651 AOP Squadron  1 August 1941  Old Sarum - Auster
 652 AOP Squadron  1 May 1942  Old Sarum - Tiger Moth
 653 AOP Squadron  20 June 1942  Old Sarum - Tiger Moth
 654 AOP Squadron  15 July 1942  Old Sarum - Tiger Moth
 655 AOP Squadron  8 December 1942  Old Sarum - Auster Mark I
 656 AOP Squadron   31 December 1942  Westley - Auster Mark I and III
 657 AOP Squadron  31 January 1943  Ouston - Auster Mark I and III
 658 AOP Squadron  30 April 1943  Old Sarum - Auster Mark III
 659 AOP Squadron  30 April 1943  Firbeck - Auster Mark III
 660 AOP Squadron  31 July 1943  Old Sarum - Auster Mark III and IV
 661 AOP Squadron     31 August 1943  Old Sarum
 662 AOP Squadron  30 September 1943  Old Sarum
 663 AOP Squadron  6 December 1944  Italy (Polish Squadron)
 664 RCAF AOP Squadron  1 December 1944  Andover (Canadian Squadron)
 665 RCAF AOP Squadron  22 February 1945  Andover (Canadian Squadron)
 666 RCAF AOP Squadron  5 March 1945  Andover (Canadian Squadron)

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